Harris Theater Presents MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP and SILKROAD ENSEMBLE in Layla and Majnun Review – A Dance Opera of East and West

“True love means sacrificing one’s life for his beloved
A soul that has not been given to a beloved is a wasted soul
Lovers want to be together
But separation brings them joy forever.”

The stage is dimly lit by candle light. Two Mugham vocalists are seated on cushions, along with musicians playing kamancheh (Iranian string instrument) and tar (a lute-like string instrument from Azerbaijan and Iran). The evening starts with a Bayati Shiraz (Medley of Azerbaijani Music). They set an ancient tone from a far off land. To continue this time travel, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimov take center stage; clearly our Layla and Majnun have arrived, followed by other 12 members of the SILKROAD ENSEMBLE. The music that they are creating is not only ancient but also oddly familiar. The original opera was written by Uzeyir Hajibeyli (1885-1948). This Silkroad’s arrangement by Alim Qasimov, Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen is a fusion of eastern and western instruments.The sound mixing is clear, yet not overpowering, highlighting the vocalists with ample support from the ensemble.

The abstract oil paint. ....reminiscent of the royal Mughal Courts PHOTO BY SUSANA MILLMAN
The libretto of love and separation, sorrow and despair ending in the lover's tragic demise PHOTO BY SUSANA MILLMAN
Sufi Poetry in motion PHOTO BY SUSANA MILLMAN

The simplicity and color of the set and costume designed by Howard Hodgkins (1932-2017) gives us a breath of fresh air. Very thankful for the simplicity of the set design to look at 12 musicians and 16 dancers, all integrated together on stage, at times, which can be overwhelming. The backdrop image by Howard Hodgkins is an abstract oil painting of red and green, the rich colors remniscent of the royal Mughal courts.

The addition of text projecting above the stage, reminds us of where we are in the program. The super abridged lyrical content is appreciated for the fact that it is informative, yet not distracting. The Libretto by Uzeyir Hajibeyli (based on the poem by Muhammad Fuzuli), is expressed in 5 main themes of love and separation, the parent’s disapproval, sorrow and despair, Layla’s unwanted wedding and ends tragically in the lovers demise.

Our ancient musical journey is juxtaposed by the modern movements by MARK MORRIS DANCE GROUP. The women, dressed in long orange gowns and men in blue and white kurtas (Long blue Indian shirts and white trousers) gracefully make their way, weaving and intertwining through the musicians. Their movements wistful and emotive though rooted in modern dance, are inspired by Sufi Dervish twirling and Khaleeji (characterized by energetic Hair flipping and shimming). The folk movements from Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan incorporated in the choreography are reminiscent of the western jive of the late 40s.

However, from a professionally trained dancer and choreographer’s eyes, there is awkwardness in the movements. Incorporating a different dance opens a performer up for vulnerability. We would hope that this will smooth out with practice. Moreover, for someone raised with this classic tale which endues the longing and pain from separation and demise as the Indian born co-author here, it is jarring to see the dancers smile joyously during some of the tragic moments. From these writers' perspective, the dance did not reach the high bar that the music has set.

This production of the classic tragic love story of Layla and Majnun, the Romeo and Juliet of the east, felt like an ecstatic musical celebration.  Couldn’t ask for a timelier piece; the amalgamation of South Eurasian music, modern dance and contemporary visuals. An excellent concert piece to be travelling the world, entertaining as it is, educational as well.

These writers recommend this production to students of the world, to lovers of passion, anthropologists hungry for ancient literature and purveyors of antiquity fused with the modern.



An amalgamation of South Eurasian music, modern dance and contemporary visuals: East meets West PHOTO BY SUSANA MILLMAN

Please visit the Harris Theater website, or call Box Office at 312.334.7777 for information about upcoming music and dance performances in the remainder of this season.

For more information on the timeless classic of Layla and Majnun, please visit Layla and Majnun, by Mark Morris Dance Group and Silkroad Ensemble.

Learn more about dance by seeing dance through dancers eyes in the Picture This Post series, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”.  Watch this video preview of the story here— 

Kinnari Vora

Kinnari Vora is a versatile dancer and choreographer in Bharatnatyam (South Indian Classical dance), Indian folk, Kalaripayattu (Indian martial arts) and Indian classical contemporary. She was trained under Guru Sarmishtha Sarkar (India) and was mentored by Guru Pranita Jain (Chicago). She is the co-creator of Ishti (dance collective with Preeti Veerlapati) and is the principal dancer and choreographer for Surabhi Ensemble.  She has performed in India, Italy, Poland, Greece, Israel and the USA. Kinnari also has a practice as a doctor of physical therapy.

Bob Garrett

Bob Garrett has been a professional musician in Chicago for over 20 years. Bob is currently performing in the Broadway in Chicago production of HAMILTON. Other credits include: writing and performing the percussion book for Sting's THE LAST SHIP; performing in the national tour of THE LION KING for 4 years; performing with various dance troupes including The Seldoms, Alvin Ailey, and Randy Duncan,. He is also the co-creator of Posterchild art (multi-disciplined art company, with Nadine Lollino) and co-creator of ESCP (electronic music duo, with Chihsuan Yang). 

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